Inside story

Annual Yom Kippur mass prayer tests the limits of Tel Aviv’s vaunted liberalism

City has prohibited the placing of a divider between men and women at popular street event that draws 2,000 Orthodox and secular participants; as things stand, it won’t go ahead

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

A bird's-eye view of about 2,000 worshipers as they attend the Yom Kippur Ne'ilah prayer in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 5, 2022. (Courtesy of Rosh Yehudi)
A bird's-eye view of about 2,000 worshipers as they attend the Yom Kippur Ne'ilah prayer in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 5, 2022. (Courtesy of Rosh Yehudi)

Dizengoff Square is an iconic traffic circle in Tel Aviv that’s part of one of the city’s main shopping areas, thanks to the many designer shops and cafes that line its circumference.

It’s not, however, where many people go looking for a meaningful religious experience.

Except, that is, for one night a year. Since 2019, Dizengoff Square has hosted an annual mass prayer service of about 2,000 people, most of them wearing white, at the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

The event, organized by Rosh Yehudi, a nonprofit that encourages Jews to embrace a religious lifestyle, has become a new holiday tradition cherished by many devout and seculars alike, in part because it connects their two groups at a time of growing polarization.

But this year, that polarization seems to have caught up even with the Dizengoff Square prayer.

Last month, the Tel Aviv Municipality told the organizers that they could not erect a mechitzah – a physical barrier used during prayers to separate men from women in accordance with halacha, Orthodox Jewish law.

In response, Rosh Yehudi announced that the event would not be held unless the city withdrew its stipulation, because this would violate halachic principles. It is also seeking a court injunction against the city’s decision. The Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday rejected Rosh Yehudi’s petition. The group has not said whether it plans to appeal.

About 2,000 worshipers attend the Yom Kippur Ne’ilah prayer in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on October 5, 2022. (Courtesy of the Municipality of Tel Aviv)

The dispute sees Mayor Ron Huldai, who is running for reelection next month, facing criticism that the city he runs is falling short of its own pluralistic principles. Advocates of the city’s ban on a mechitzah at the event, on the other hand, praise the move as a blow against religious coercion.

Seen more broadly, the dispute over the Dizengoff Square prayer service is a sobering example of how an initiative that once transcended Israel’s religious-secular divide has this year deepened it, amid the ideological clash over religion and state in connection with the government’s judicial overhaul.

Whereas synagogues remain unaffected by the municipality’s new policy, “the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo has declined the ‘Rosh Yehudi’ association’s request to conduct Tishrei holiday events and prayers, including Rosh Hashanah, in multiple public areas within the city,” Asaf Eshel, a senior spokesperson for the municipality, told The Times of Israel, naming the Hebrew calendar month. “The sole granted permission is for hosting the collective Ne’ilah prayers on Tsina Dizengoff Sq., with a stipulation against gender segregation during the prayer session,” he wrote in a reply to a query.

The mechitzah would infringe “upon freedom of movement based on gender [and] will not be tolerated,” he added.

Men and women pray separately with a mechitzah dividing them at a synagogue on Bugrashov St. in Tel Aviv, on May 26, 2023. (Courtesy of Rosh Yehudi)

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that enforcing sex segregation in some public spaces is illegal if it infringes excessively on individuals’ freedom of movement. However, the ruling made significant exceptions, stipulating it may take place if alternatives exist and depending on the degree of disturbance caused. The Magistrate’s Court in Tel Aviv will soon have to decide on the law’s applicability in the case of the Yom Kippur prayer.

Michal Balisa, a 36-year-old practitioner of Chinese medicine, called the position taken by the municipality “a mistake.”

Balisa, who is secular, said she can “understand both sides. There is religious coercion going on, and also discrimination against women in religious communities. But the Dizengoff Ne’ilah event is about inclusion, not exclusion,” she said.

Ne’ilah means “locking up” and it refers to the concluding prayers of Yom Kippur.

Sucked into ‘this big fight’

Dikla Partosh, the logistics director at Rosh Yehudi, said the municipality’s stipulation appeared on the permission slip it gave her organization and “was just added to the document that we’d received since 2019.”

“We can’t go ahead with the event [if the mechitzah ban is not lifted] because it goes against our truth,” she said.

Rosh Yehudi was established in 2001 and runs programs that it says “deepen Jewish identity and help create a bridge between seculars and religious people.”

Israel Zeira, the founder of Rosh Yehudi, in a 2021 interview said the group is “proud” of what’s known in Hebrew as hadatah, literally making something more religious. “We’re not ashamed of hadatah, I wish the whole of Religious Zionism were doing hadatah.”

However, the organization and its values came to the forefront again on Tuesday when a synagogue in Tel Aviv hosted a discussion on postmodernism that was organized by Rosh Yehudi and featured a lecture by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, a top figure at the Bnei David pre-military academy in Eli who has called members of the LGBTQ community “deviant” and has complained that the army is turning religious female conscripts into “non-Jews.”

Some 300 people rallied outside the synagogue to protest the event, leading to chaotic scenes as Levinstein was escorted out under heavy police protection.

Zeira said that “not all of Levinstein’s views represent Rosh Yehudi” but that his organization stood by its decision to host Levinstein.

Rabbi Yigal Levinstein makes his way through protests in Tel Aviv on September 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“The protest against us, including on the Dizengoff prayer event, is led by the anti-overhaul people. It’s the same crowd. It’s the left. And I don’t see them apologizing for professors who call settlers Nazis, as protest leader Shikma Bressler has done, and I don’t see them de-platforming those who echo Hamas’s talking points,” said Zeira. (Bressler in fact quickly apologized for her comment about far-right politicians).

Rosh Yehudi is “open to all, including LGBTQ people,” Zeira said.

Ben Hoshen, the chair of the left-wing Meretz party’s youth movement, called Rosh Yehudi “a sick organization that brings in homophobic, unenlightened people into an egalitarian and liberal city to tear it apart, to pollute it with hatred and homophobia.”

Levinstein “cannot even be called a rabbi,” Hoshen told Radio 103FM.

Mechitzah is ‘a technicality’

Pictures from past Rosh Yehudi events show mechitzahs made variously of material, wood, metal and wicker stretching for several meters.

“It’s meant to check the halachic box. It’s a technicality,” says Elazar Strum, a presenter of programs on Jewish traditions on TOV, an online television channel. “There were people of both sexes on either side. No one was enforcing segregation. On the other side of the square, there was no mechitzah.”

Strum, a 76-year-old father of two who grew up in a Haredi home, thinks the municipality’s decision is “pure zealotry, an attempt to overregulate where it’s not necessary. A brutal flexing of secular muscles ahead of a municipal election.”

Elazar Strum speaks on the TOV online television channel in 2021. (Courtesy of TOV)

One woman who lives near Dizengoff Square, who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity because she said she feared “retribution,” said that the event was organized despite the wishes of many locals.

“Rosh Yehudi bus in people from the territories,” she said, referring to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “It’s a show of force and it’s making us very uneasy,” the woman said.

Yair Nehorai, a prominent attorney who has argued in court against what he deems religious extremists, wrote an op-ed about the subject, which he shared on multiple WhatsApp groups.

“Make no mistake: Rosh Yehudi and the Ma’aleh Eliyahu yeshivah and their messianic friends have set up shop in Tel Aviv for a reason: a divine mission to smash the bastion of secularism and the capital city of liberal Israel, to pave the way to a religious state that would fulfill their messianic vision,” he wrote.

The conflict around the Dizengoff prayer comes on the heels of multiple instances reported by the Israeli media in recent months of alleged attempts to enforce sex segregation on buses that serve Haredi and secular passengers. The Supreme Court ruled that such enforcement is illegal in its 2000 decision.

Some opponents of the sex-segregated prayer view it as a women’s rights issue.

“This is offensive to all women, who view this segregation as meant to exclude them from the public space and oppress them,” Hila Laviv, a well-known artist, wrote on Facebook this month. But many women view it differently.

“Saying that sex-segregated prayer is oppressive to women is ignoring the agency of countless women who want it for their faith-related reasons, who believe it is conducive to their worship,” Moriya Litvak, the director of Yehudit, a conservative women’s rights organization, told The Times of Israel. “That liberal view is paternalistic and oppressive to women. Sex-segregated prayer is not.”

A broader clash

The argument over the Dizengoff prayer is part of a clash that’s broader than the issue of segregation. It’s about the role and status of Orthodox religion in society, and it manifests itself regularly in heated debates and, at times violent clashes, on such issues as driving on Shabbat; bringing bread and other leavened food products into hospitals and other public facilities on Passover; and selling nonkosher food such as pork.

Men and women sit together at an event held by Rosh Yehudi in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on November 11, 2022. The event featured a mechitzah, or divide. (Courtesy of Rosh Yehudi)

Merav Michaeli, the head of the Labor Party and a vocal advocate of women’s rights, in a debate on Wednesday referenced what she considers the provocative nature of the mechitzah in a secular setting such as Dizengoff. She called the partition “an idol in the Temple,” meaning something objectionable in a holy place. She also said that “there’s no difference between racial segregation and gender-based one.”

Balisa thinks the real reason for the municipality’s decision may be connected to the acrimonious debate on the role of religion in Israel, which has intensified since the formation late last year of the governing coalition comprising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and five religious parties.

The government’s judicial overhaul, which seeks sweeping curbs on the powers of the court, is seen by critics as part and parcel of a broader push to subject Israeli society to more religious principles. Some women’s rights groups say that the push is also meant to undermine the principle of equality for women.

“So you have an organization that holds encounters on the street level getting sucked into this big fight about religion,” Balisa said.

Israelis protest the government’s judicial overhaul outside the Rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv, July 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Her attendance at last year’s Ne’ilah was “a life-altering moment,” she said. A secular Jew who was brought up to distrust Orthodox Jewry, she was surprised by the “diversity and togetherness” at the event.

“There were regulars and first-timers like me and people who had just come back from the beach,” Balisa said, referencing a favorite Yom Kippur pastime of some secular Israelis. “But we all shared this moment like it was the most natural thing in the world.”

Strum recalls the reactions of the beach-goers, some of them toting surfboards, to the Ne’ilah prayer. “Some walked on. Others stood there, with their surfboards, for 30 minutes. Others stayed for an hour. And some just joined in, still wearing their swimming trunks and flip-flops.”

It reminded him of an experience he had had in southern Egypt, when he and another Israeli friend happened on a communal prayer where worshipers chanted rhythmically “one” in Arabic, signifying the uniqueness of Allah. Strum joined the chants, feeling united with the crowd. “It didn’t make me a Muslim. It did make me realize what I share with those Muslims. And that’s the kind of experience the zealots in Tel Aviv want to prevent.”

Men pray on the street in Tel Aviv on March 11, 2023. (Courtesy of Rosh Yehudi)

Yedidya Meir, a prominent Haredi journalist, wrote on the Hidabroot website about the 2021 Ne’ilah gathering, describing it as hopeful and uplifting. “Long before the end of the fast, masses of people of all ages and observance levels streamed in, waiting silently to hear the shofar. It was moving,” he wrote in his account on the website, which promotes secular-religious interaction and whose name means “dialogue.” He urged his readers: “You should try it.”

Rabbi David Stav, founder of the Tzohar Orthodox rabbinical group, which many view as a moderate alternative to the Chief Rabbinate, called the municipality’s position “an attack against freedom of religion.”

He added: “It’s fine to limit the freedom of religion when it infringes excessively on other freedoms, rights or public interests. But the placing a mechitzah for a couple of hours in Dizengoff Square does not infringe on anything but the automatic aversion that some people have to anything Jewish, or perhaps religious,” Stav told The Times of Israel.

Rabbi David Stav, cofounder and chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

In sharp contrast, Reuven Ladianski, a member of the city council of Tel Aviv and head of the Secular Greens party, writing on Facebook, called the prayer “an attempt by messianic radicals to damage the secular and liberal lifestyle in Tel Aviv.”

HaForum Hahiloni (“The Secular Forum”), a nonprofit devoted to fighting what it regards as religious coercion, referenced in a statement last week the “sophistication,” as the statement’s author termed it, of Rosh Yehudi in holding the event in Tel Aviv.

“It’s a sophisticated act because the average secular liberal feels threatened by this nationalistic-religious assault but as a pluralist feels that religion should be given the liberty to turn the public space into a synagogue. It’s a grave mistake that ignores the symbolic dimension of the event.”

The statement described Tel Aviv, an enclave of liberalism in a country and region where religious traditions tend to set the norms, as a target for religious people.

The Ne’ilah prayer is “not really a public service, but a marking of a territory,” wrote HaForum Hahiloni. “There are plenty of synagogues in Tel Aviv (about 500 of them) with sex segregation. Praying in a public space is meant to provoke seculars to make it clear to them that religion rules the space, including and especially in Tel Aviv – the bastion of liberalism and secularism.”

Israelis sit on the promenade at the Tel Aviv port on Yom Kippur, October 04, 2014. (Photo by Danielle Shitrit /Flash 90)

Amid this year’s Ne’ilah event dispute, Rosh Yehudi presented photos of an event held in June in Jaffa, which is part of the Tel Aviv municipality, for Arab Muslims, which featured a divide made of municipal fencing blocks between men and women. Rosh Yehudi accused the municipality of having a double standard.

Eshel, the municipal spokesperson, replied: “Even in the case of communal Muslim prayers, the installation of gender separation partitions has not been approved. In instances where such partitions have been erected, it has been done without municipal authorization.”

Most Popular
read more: